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A hand holds a burger with jalapeno, mozzarella, etc.
The Mexican burger paradoxically comes on a bagel.

Grazing On-the-Go in East Harlem

Burgers, fish and chips, drunken noodles, and gorditas

Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the fifteenth installment and here’s the last edition.

When I find myself with an empty afternoon, I often just put my finger down at random on the map and then head there for a food run. I bring a friend or two and have a beginning and ending place in mind, but it often happens that we get waylaid somewhere along the route. Last Friday I picked East Harlem, which I hadn’t visited in a few months, figuring on checking out new taquerias and street-eats stalls around East 116th Street.

Well, I made the mistake of taking the 4 train to 125th to avoid the tediously slow 6 train. I headed down Lex, and right away decided to pop into Jimbo’s Hamburger Palace, a local chain with 17 branches in the city — mainly in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx — that largely go unnoticed. I couldn’t resist the Mexican burger ($9.50). The employees laughed when I ordered it, as one read the ingredients aloud to the fry cook: burger patty, mozzarella, bacon, avocado, and jalapenos. Fair enough, but it came on a plain bagel — and it tasted great, though it would have been better for breakfast. 2027 Lexington Avenue, near 124th Street

On the next block was Harlem Cop N Go, a small and friendly fried seafood place whose signature was a fish or chicken sandwich named for the restaurant. I was excited to see this place, only three years old, because it seemed to be flourishing, as many of the Korean seafood markets that also sold fried fish sandwiches were fast disappearing from Harlem. I got the fish and chips ($8) which featured three whiting filets and a wealth of French fries, all prepared to order. 2021 Lexington Avenue, near 123rd Street

fish and chips in a basket lined with red checked paper.
Three whiting filets, with fries.

A black plastic container filled with chicken and noodles.
Drunken noodles from ThaiBKK.

I was clearly getting bogged down before even nearing my destination, but I didn’t care because the food was so enthralling. Best of all was the next stop, in the same building as Harlem Cop N Go: ThaiBKK, a tiny carryout with no seating that looked like it had hastily occupied a former Chinese restaurant. Statues of Buddha were on a shelf above the counter, and the menu featured classic curries and stir fries, with a few Isan dishes. I picked the drunken noodles with chicken ($11), and the result was sweet and spicy with plenty of orange and green chiles that were not bell peppers. I couldn’t stop shoveling the slippery rice noodles down. 2021 Lexington Avenue, near 123rd Street

Figuring I’d better switch avenues, I went over to Third Avenue, a region of faded discount stores and small Dominican businesses, and soon stumbled on a place called Cheese Lovers Restaurant. Great name! I went inside; it turned out to be a pizzeria with a decent margherita slice ($5) and some odd garlic knots shaped like napkin rings. Why the name of the restaurant, I asked the pizzaiola? “Because everything has cheese in it,” she smiled. 2166 Third Avenue, near 118th Street

A wedge of pizza with fresh mozzarella on it.
Margherita slice from Cheese Lovers Restaurant.

Donut split horizontally with yellow custard inside.
Custard doughnut from Don Paco.
A table with loaves of round bread on it.
Selling pan de fiesta from Tlaxcala on East 116th Street.

I hit a promising place when I found Cazuela Mexicana (207 East 117th Street, just east of Third Avenue), which had virtually no internet presence when I checked it on my phone. I walked down the stairs to below sidewalk level, where I found a colorfully decorated dining room, and ordered from a menu of mainly antojitos a chorizo and potato gordita ($7.50). The waiter told me it would take 20 minutes, so I left to eat some more while I waited.

I popped into an old favorite, Don Paco Bakery (2133 Third Avenue, near 116th Street), where a pair of showcases display pan dulce right inside the door. I picked a doughnut dusted with granulated sugar, cut crosswise like a sandwich, oozing copious amounts of vanilla custard. Eating it as I exited, I went to the corner of Third and 116th, where a guy was selling round loaves of Mexican pan de fiesta in three varieties (egg, nut, or cinnamon) from a card table. He said the bread came from Tlaxcala, a state directly northeast of Puebla. The next morning, it made excellent French toast.

I picked up my gordita, which turned out to be excellent, and headed for the subway.

A hand holds a split gordita with filling inside, the tracks in the background.
Eating my chorizo and potato gordita in the subway, waiting for the 6 train.
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